Lapis lazuli is an opaque rock aggregate of intense cobalt blue colour which often displays irregular grains of golden pyrite or veins of white calcite. The name is derived from the Latin word for stone ‘lapis' and the word ‘lazuli' is the Persian name of the mine. Over time, the word ‘lazuli' has become synonymous with its colour, for example the English word ‘azure' meaning bright blue. Lapis lazuli is typically formed into beads, cabochons and colourful inlays.
Historically this stone was mined in Afghanistan as early as the 7th century BC and featured in the jewellery of some of the earliest civilisations. Beads have been discovered at Mehrgarh, a Neolithic site in Pakistan; also at Shahr-e Sukhteh, a Bronze Age site in Iran; the Assyrians and Babylonians were known to have used lapis lazuli in jewellery; the Ancient Egyptians also worked it- for example one of the most iconic artefacts of the ancient world utilises lapis as the eye makeup on the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun. In the ancient world, lapis was prized to the same extent as other blue gems such as sapphires or turquoise and was transported from its remote mountainous mine location by merchant caravans.
Lapis lazuli is also famously known for being ground up as pigment for some of the most celebrated works of art ever created. This pigment, ultramarine, was the most expensive of all blue pigments and was used by Vermeer, Da Vinci and Titian but to name a few of the Old Masters. It was so expensive a pigment that the colour was often reserved only for the robes of Christ and the Virgin Mary.